There’s something about sex and romance in literature that puts a lot of people on edge. The idea that this shouldn’t be public, or is somehow cheap and unworthy, or in some other way not for them. I say this not to judge but so that I can say straight away that if this is you, this review will be of academic interest only.
Because Kushiel’s Dart is probably the most unabashedly sexual and romantic book in mainstream Fantasy’s canon.
The title refers to the main character, Phedre; raised from early childhood to be a courtesan, trained to be a spy, and touched by the hand of a fallen angel so that she experiences pain as sexual pleasure. It is quite easy to imagine ways that concept could go awry if handled without sensitivity but it doesn’t. I do not agree with every choice Carey makes in depicting her heroine and world – I don’t think anyone in the world other than maybe Carey does – but for the most part I found they made for compelling reading, a crucial thing in a tale told solely through Phedre’s words and thoughts.
Indeed, whether the reader likes Phedre or not will have a lot to do with whether they like the book. Once, rashly, I recommended this book to my mother (for there is a great deal more than sexuality to this book and we’re fairly open about life) but she bounced off of Phedre’s personality before she even got to the dirty stuff, something for which I’m now thankful. I think she found Phedre a bit too full of herself. I’d agree she is at times, but to me that’s part of her charm. Phedre is precocious, gifted, and knows it; she wouldn’t have felt quite right without a little ego to go with it. She’s also empathic and insightful – which combines to form a sympathy for just about everyone – and courageous, witty, and demurely unapologetic. I like her. I like seeing the world through her eyes. To me, she is one of the great unsung protagonists of Fantasy. She is the main reason to read this book.
She is not the only reason. Carey has an eye for creating fascinating, larger than life characters who bestride her world like heroes and villains of the great romances. Their struggles are both Machiavelllian (in both sides) and deeply personal and emotional, and form the spine of a cracking plot that interweaves mystery, intrigue, personal drama and romance to great effect. What makes this book work so well is Phedre has such a close seat to great events (and I’ve just realised that’s one of my favourite types of books); the events are as fascinating as the narrator.
If I had to pick fault, the setting doesn’t compel me as much as the other elements. It wasn’t a criticism I’d have made the first time I read it but during last Wyrd & Wonder’s group read, there were questions about the countries Phedre visited and my response was basically to scratch my beard. Carey presents us with an alternate Europe, where the Nordo-Germanic tribes (Skaldi) never toppled the Roman Empire (Tiberium), and events in the Middle East gave us a Jewish (Yeshuite) diaspora but no Christianity or Islam, but a god born from Yeshua’s blood striking the soil at the crucixifition. That god is Elua, who convinced some fallen angels (including Kushiel, Phedre’s benefactor) to follow him, and settled in France (Terre D’Ange), where he and his angels bred with the population to leave them supernaturally beautiful. It’s meant to be a romantic glamourous mis-mash rendering of Europe but it lacks rigour in the details (for a population untouched by the Skaldi, Terre D’Ange still has a lot of Frankish names) and crucially, it just doesn’t nail the glamour. They fall between the two stools of wow-worthy fantasy and viscerally real alt-history.
It doesn’t detract from the story. Carey gave us a stage of gilded wood for her players to strut like stars on; that works for me.
One final note before I wrap up. This book deals with some heavy stuff in terms of trauma, consent, and sexuality, with a few side dishes of ethnic stereotypes. Because the PoV character observing it is a little brash, very resilient, and very proud of her culture, the words don’t always deal with these topics as some might wish. I do not think Carey intends us to agree with Phedre every time, and I do not think Carey deals with them poorly in general, but this is a caveat worth laying on thick in general. Kushiel’s Dart deals with heavier details than many a fantasy – but deals with them like many a fantasy.
But what a fantasy. People will talk about the sex scenes and Phedre’s rampant horniness and the straight outta romance tropes between Phedre and certain individuals and my are those things there, but they are spliced and bound with the sort of fantasy pioneered by Kurtz and popularised by Kay, Bujold, and Martin; clear historical influences given light touches of the fantastical, books driven by intrigue and drama and glorious, flawed human beings. What Carey did with Kushiel’s Dart ranks very, very close, and if that doesn’t get you interested in reading, nothing will.